MAY 1, 2004 – THE MEDIA BUZZ SURROUNDING VAANAM VASAPPADUM has focussed on the fact that it is India’s first ever full-length digital film. That’s impressive, yes, but it’s also a technical feat that doesn’t mean much to an audience. (Some scenes, actually, look far from cutting edge, as if shot using the rear projection techniques of long, long ago.) What we want is that the movie affects us in ways that go beyond how it’s been made.
That Vaanam Vasappadum does – at times. PC Sreeram, in his third directorial outing, proves that he hasn’t simply worked with the likes of Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan, he’s learned from them as well. When Karthik (Karthik Kumar) falls in love with Poongothai (Poongothai Chandrahasan), he calls her poo and woos her with flowers; it’s the kind of yuppie love Mani Ratnam practically invented. (Mahesh’s title track is even picturised like Alaipaayuthey’s Pachchai Nirame.) The comic accidents resulting from Poongothai’s attempts at driving a car remind you of Gautami’s automobile mishaps in Aboorva Sagotharargal. There’s even a sweetly romantic sequence in a crowded PTC bus that evokes the sweetly romantic sequence in a crowded PTC bus in Sathya (with Kamal-Amala, during the Valayosai song segment).
Besides these borrowed riches, there’s some outstandingly original storytelling, involving the film’s most fascinating characters – no, not the leads, but the sociopathic boys (very well played by Ranjith Bhimsingh and Avinash) who ruin the leads’ lives. Their story forms a powerfully fleshed out parallel track – boosted by the unconventional, and very effective, casting of Kovai Sarala – and though you don’t forgive them for what they do, you understand why they do what they do after learning about their backgrounds, after seeing the personal demons they’re battling.
The most interesting relationship in the film is also fascinatingly etched out – and no, this again isn’t about Karthik and Poongothai, but about Nasser and Revathi, as Karthik’s parents. Nasser is mute, and he’s simply that – mute. It’s a given: there’s no backstory as to how he met Revathi, no attempt to wring tears from the audience using his handicap. You want to know more about these well-performed characters, and that’s again the director’s triumph.
A similar empathy, however, does not translate to Karthik and Poongothai. They’re perfect in the lighter portions, in the innovative song picturisations (a few too many, though, for this short a film), but once the going gets tough, their plights do not involve you as they should. Karthik Kumar gets sidelined and the lion’s share of actorly moments goes to Poongothai, but Sreeram appears to have looked at her solely from a cinematographer’s viewpoint, not a director’s. She has too many rough edges for a role this heavy, and she isn’t helped by the way her character shapes up – one minute, she’s extraordinarily close to her father (Vijayakumar, who vanishes bafflingly after a point); later, she’s extremely happy when getting married in his absence.
That’s a problem because Sujatha’s story, after the fun and frolic, settles into a mix of Ghar (dealing with a woman’s response to a traumatic experience) and Damini/Priyanka (with elaborate, unsavoury courtroom antics aimed at embarrassing womanhood). So the second half, especially, needs major emotional inputs that just aren’t forthcoming from the leads.
Instead, we get a hammy turn from Thalaivaasal Vijay – not his fault, really, for there’s only so much someone can do while shouting out words like ‘penetration’ and ‘nymphomaniac’, along with their graphic Tamil equivalents. There’s also a great deal made about poetic justice – we hear, more than once, the term ‘poetic justice;’ we see what’s intended as poetic justice – but what happens ultimately isn’t particularly poetic or just.
At these points, I wanted less of the oratory ballistics, more of the Karthik-Poongothai interaction. The issues are important, but it’s the people that are paramount – it’s through them that we have any hope at getting a handle on the issues. Somewhere down the line, Vaanam Vasappadum becomes a case of several powerful moments that don’t quite add up to a singularly powerful movie.
Copyright ©2004 The Economic Times: Madras Plus